DURBAN–The Mapiko dance of Mozambique’s indigenous Makonde people was long used as a tool for social commentary. But during the colonial era it became an act of political resistance, prompting the Portuguese to stamp it out during Mozambique’s 10-year war for independence.
Decades later, the art has been revived as a celebration of freedom. For Atanasio Nyusi, a storyteller and legendary Mapiko dancer, it also represents a bridge to the past. In “The Sound of Masks,” the arresting feature documentary debut of Cape Town-based Portuguese filmmaker Sara Gouveia, Nyusi tries to use Mapiko to preserve the collective memory of the Makonde people, even as he questions who will carry on the tradition when he’s gone. The film, which had its world premiere at the Intl. Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) last year, is screening this week at the Durban Intl. Film Festival.
Gouveia spoke to Variety about the Mapiko dance as an act of political defiance, uncoupling African art from the Western gaze, and the struggle to preserve culture from one generation to the next.
As a Portuguese filmmaker, you began with an idea to explore the aftermath of the Portuguese colonial era in Mozambique. How did that evolve into the story of Atanasio Nyusi, a storyteller and acclaimed Mapiko dancer?
I met Atanasio in Cape Town, because he had come here to do a show. It was from there that I started having this curiosity about Mozambique, because I had been there a few times because of work, and just because of the historical connection. I wanted to see it from a more honest point of view. I think in Portugal we grew up with a narrative that’s very different from the truth. Once you start living in South Africa, and I spent a lot of time in Mozambique, you start realizing that what you’d been taught growing up, it’s quite different to what other people actually perceive as being their reality.
When I met him here in Cape Town, he was performing. And in his performance he addressed the audience directly, and he spoke about the colonial past. I thought, ‘Wow, this is amazing.’ Because I’d been thinking about this, and here’s a Mozambican artist who is speaking about it quite openly. I didn’t think he was actually going to be the main character. But then it turned out that Atanasio is a great storyteller, and his father is a great warrior, and all of a sudden, it just simplified the story. It became a lot more about him, but touching on all those things I was interested in exploring.
Atanasio describes how “Mapiko became a tool for challenging colonization” that was eventually banned by the colonial government, and throughout the film we see how song and dance during the colonial era were political acts. Were you surprised by the political dimensions this story took on, the more you delved into it?
That was present from the beginning. The Mapiko dancers in general have some sort of social commentary. They take from what’s happening at the time. It’s more about getting people thinking about what’s happening—their reality. So obviously, back in the day, it would have to do more with what was happening in their villages, day-to-day stuff. But once the colonizer arrives, then they start to take on a different dimension, because of being oppressed. The dance itself, it also went through a dip. During the war, the drums are very loud, so they actually couldn’t perform the dances. Because the Portuguese would know where they were hiding. It’s got a history that we didn’t have time to explore in the film. It’s a really beautiful way of looking at resilience through art.
The Makonde, who come from the far north of the country, were the last people in modern-day Mozambique to be colonized by the Portuguese. Their history, and that resistance, form part of the backbone of “The Sound of Masks,” but you chose not to make an overtly political film.
It’s quite a complex story, so we decided to keep the focus on Atanasio’s life. He was too young when the war started; he had to go to Tanzania with his mother. It also became really interesting, this idea of being that young where you don’t understand what’s happening around you, but there’s all this really important stuff happening. And I think he, as an older artist now, celebrates that in his work in a way, even though he wasn’t really there to witness it in a conscious way. He’s very proud of his people and what they’ve done for the country. There was something quite powerful about him being there, but not there. Also, his father was this great warrior. He only meets his father much later in Maputo, when he’s like 16 or 17. He’s got this almost mythological image of his father being this great warrior. A lot of Atanasio’s imagination comes from that time, and it’s almost like he has to hold onto that to stay connected to his own roots and his own family. I just felt that through his work and through his imagination, we could actually look at all those things. It’s not a film that’s pointing fingers at the colonizers necessarily, but through someone’s experience, you can feel that presence.
Scattered throughout the film are arresting visual tableaux of Mapiko dancers, shot in slow motion, against a black background. Those sequences almost feel as if they’re deliberately being taken entirely out of the film’s political, cultural, historical context, and simply being presented as beautiful acts of choreography and movement. Was it hard to strike a balance that allowed you to both explore the many layers of the Mapiko dancers, while also allowing the camera – and the viewer – to simply revel in its aesthetic beauty?
It was actually very difficult to find a balance between all the elements. That was possibly the hardest thing for us in the edit. It took us quite a long time to start finding a way to navigate all those different spaces. It was a challenge, but I think it was a good challenge. I think at one point, both [editor] Khalid [Shamis] and I were getting a little concerned about, “Are we actually going to be able to find a way to navigate all these spaces without it feeling forced?” I think we managed to find a good balance.
That was a decision that had to do with two reasons. The first is that the Mapiko is really supposed to be a spirit dancing, more than a human. So we wanted to create a space that was a little bit more ethereal. Also, apart from that, it had to do with taking the dancer away from the setting. The way I see it, for a Western eye, once you see a dancer in the traditional space, surrounded by everyone, people playing drums and singing—I think for the Western eye, we just assume it’s a tribal dance and we don’t look beyond that. We were trying to isolate the dancers so that you could pay attention to what the dance is telling. So that once we went back into that traditional space, now there’s so much meaning to the dance that you can just enjoy it and start reading from the masks and the body movements.
There’s a very strong sense of lineage throughout the film, of the ways Mapiko binds one generation to the next. One of the main narrative threads is the relationship between Atanasio and his son, Natepo, who can’t speak his mother tongue, and who we see in one scene learning a traditional dance that signified freedom. When he was describing how Mapiko was banned by the Portuguese, Atanasio said, “We are stubborn, we didn’t want to let it go.” Did you get a sense that Natepo, and his generation, have that same stubbornness, and are eager to keep this tradition alive?
The dance group that Atanasio’s in charge of, some of the guys are older than Natepo, but they do stick quite strongly to their roots. Every year they still do initiation rites in the military neighborhoods. There’s people that come from different areas of the city, and some even from other areas of the city, to do the initiation rites. And then they have big dances and everything. I think it’s still very much alive. Of course in the city, it’s becoming a little diluted, because there are people from all over Mozambique and elsewhere. In the north, it’s still very strong.
With Natepo and Atanasio, it gets quite complicated, because Natepo’s mother is not actually Makonde. So his status is mixed between two different ethnic groups. Even though he did do the initiation rites, and he learned how to dance, I feel that also because he’s growing up in the city, he’s a bit disconnected. And to be quite honest as well, I also get the feeling that maybe if your father is as good a dancer as Atanasio is, maybe you don’t want to be a dancer. [Laughs.] I think Natepo is more interested in following football than necessarily following in his father’s footsteps.
These generational gaps are always a little bit odd. There’s always misunderstandings between parents and children. It gets a bit tricky to figure it out. But Natepo is 19 now. He’s going to university. Atanasio says it at the end of the film: “One day you’re going to find out what you want to do.” And I think it’s quite a beautiful way for Atanasio to wrap that conversation. “If you want to do this, that’s great. But you have to figure it out at the end of the day.”Atanasio’s gone through all the changes in the country in his lifetime. There’s something special about it. Maybe something a little bit sad about it as well. Because I feel like he’s lost certain things, but he’s obviously also gained others. He became a professional artist, he’s traveled as a dancer to quite a few countries. But it’s there. It’s definitely alive. I don’t know if it will be alive through Natepo. [Laughs.]